Older People, Vital Churches?

Joyce with Libby Gibson at St. Mary's Church, Barnstable, MAWhat makes a church vital?

This weekend I was with the Congregational Studies Project Team and Fellows on Cape Cod for our June meeting. We are a group of scholars and researchers who study congregations and other religious assemblies/organizations, and create resources for persons (especially congregational leaders) interested in engaging in disciplined reflection on their own congregational contexts. When the Congregational Studies Project Team meets, we typically visit and discuss a local congregation to see what we can learn about American religions more generally, and about congregations in particular. We think together about questions such as what factors contribute to the apparent vitality of some congregations, and to the decline of others.

On Sunday we had the pleasure of visiting St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Barnstable, Massachusetts, where VTS alumna and adjunct faculty member Libby Gibson is the rector.  This parish, located in a picturesque small town on the Cape, has incredible resources: an active and engaged membership base with strong lay and clergy leadership; a lovely location and physical plant including beautiful gardens (complete with a memorial garden for pets!); and a commitment to local mission. The church also boasts some 75 new members this year, about half of whom are 40 years old and younger, with the others being in the 60-and-above age group that matches this area’s demographic as a retirement destination. Indeed, sitting in the congregation, while there were some younger worshipers, the dominant hair color was gray. And the primary “tone” was vitality! The energy and warmth of the community were palpable during worship and beyond it. People lingered in the pews after worship to talk to their neighbors, and then lingered some more over lemonade in the fellowship time outside. We heard about vibrant ministries with the parish and beyond it, out in the community.

Can a congregation with a large proportion of older adult members be a vital church? Common stereotypes about both “vital church” and “older adults” seem to say no, posing these two terms as opposites.  But I see such stereotypes to be based on some myths about older adulthood that just don’t hold up well under scrutiny. The first of these myths is that older adulthood is automatically synonymous with poor health. While it is the case that older adults experience increasing health issues across time, there exist significant differences between individuals, as is the case during other points along the life cycle. But in addition, there also are huge differences between older adults in their sixties and those in their nineties. Gerontologists note that with the increasing lifespan of persons, it is no longer even possible to automatically speak of older adults as a single homogenous group with shared characteristics. Most of these scholars distinguish between the “young-old,” the “older” and the “old-old.” The young-old are older adults who are active, mobile, and perhaps with retirement or transition out of full time employment, may even have increased time and energy to offer toward things about which they care such as church involvements. We spoke with many such people in the church we visited today. The middle “older” group, gerontologists note, also are active and engaged, but perhaps experiencing some problems with mobility that begin to place some limits on their engagements. Among those classified as the “old-old,” generally octogenarians and above, the fuller impact of emerging health issues becomes more widely visible, and yet still it cannot be taken for granted that all adults in this life phase are the so-called frail elderly. Writer and researcher George Vaillant suggests that as human lifespans increase, the actual length of time older adults experience acute disability is decreasing.

What this means is that congregations populated with a preponderance of older adults like the church we visited today may well evidence a lot of energy and vitality, particularly when many of those older adults are in the active “young-old” phase of older adulthood.

A second myth that makes it hard for some people to equate older adulthood with congregational vitality is the notion that older adults as a group are primarily “receivers” rather than contributors to congregational life. This simply is not the case. Older adults contribute in a variety of ways to the vitality of their congregations. Financially, they support the church with their stewardship at a rate of $46/1 compared with younger adults. In terms of hands-on ministries, many older adults are active in service, teaching, and justice ministries of their congregations. Older adults provide a large amount of congregational pastoral care through their formal and informal visits, phone calls, and prayer ministries. They are important story-bearers for faith communities where mobility and other factors can create a dirth of long-term narratives for understanding a congregation’s walk of faith across time.

Vitality is not merely a synonym for youth. It refers instead to a person or community’s ability to engage life fully. It is about participating in and sharing the abundant life of God in the world. We did hear stories at St. Mary’s celebrating the presence of younger members among their many newcomers. But we also heard stories about how various church members (including older members) are able to create initiatives within this church around the things about which they have passion, such as environmentalism and the celebration of animal companions; education and the importance of church members sharing their gifts with children in less privileged communities elsewhere on Cape Cod; and again and again, the importance of intentionally choosing to be a welcoming, inclusive faith community. Against the commonly heard story that the mainline church in the U.S. is in decline in part because of its aging demographic, the story of St. Mary’s suggests that such a narrative is too simplistic. It seems to me that the vitality of this congregation is less about age demographics and more about a critical balance between the nurture of internal community (stressing welcome, warmth, and celebrating the gifts of church members) with that of external community (extending God’s grace into the world by taking their gifts and commitments outside of themselves in mission), all fed by an expertly led and joyfully celebrated liturgical life.  What do you think makes congregations vital?



Is Privacy Even a Thing Anymore?

Virginia Theological Seminary last week hosted an e-formation event: a chance for people to gain skills, or grow the ones they already have, in using digital technologies and social networking  for the ministry of Christian formation. It’s an important topic and skill-set.  Our seminary faculty attended some of the e-formation workshops Friday morning. As a faculty, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking together about technology and teaching. Some of us embrace these technologies  relatively seamlessly, while for others it is more of a struggle. I probably fall somewhere in the middle of those two options: I am not a digital native, but I really enjoy what these technologies bring to teaching and learning, communication, and connections with people. Still,  I learned to type on a manual typewriter, and excitedly received a portable electric typewriter as a high school graduation present that took me through college and two graduate degrees. Like an immigrant to a new country and culture, I make my way into the land of new technologies and social media with a strange combination of clumsiness and excitement.

I notice that privacy is one of the major stumbling blocks for many of us digital immigrants affecting our overall comfort level  in using social networking platforms like  Facebook, Twitter, or even blogging. This does not appear to be as much of an issue for people born with their fingers on a keyboard. What accounts for the difference? Perhaps it has to do with how technologies shape cultural frameworks and personhood itself in relation to boundaries around information flow. Put differently, the existence of these media forms brings a changed expectation about privacy, into which people live. Those who have never lived with a different expectation do not experience the dis-ease that  I and others feel upon creating a Second Self in the virtual world.

For those concerned about privacy, and for those who don’t even think of it as a thing to worry about anymore, law professor Lori Andrews’ book I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy (2012) offers a good read. Andrews appreciates the many benefits of social networking. But she also cautions that data aggregation by companies (who gather data on us every time we put a search term into a web browser or click on a link) construct a second self for us and without our permission–one that is inevitably a distortion of identity. For example, suppose I search the term “seasonal affective disorder” as part of my academic research on types of depression. In the virtual world, this becomes part of my “identity”  in an un-nuanced way: the data aggregators cannot discern, nor do they care, whether I myself suffer from depression, or am simply a curious seeker of information about the phenomena. Andrews notes that people are already being discriminated against in employment and school contexts on the basis of such associations, calling it the new from of “redlining” for the 21st century. We may not realize, she says, “the extent to which [our] offline self is being overshadowed by [our] digital doppelgänger” ( p. 13). Andrews argues that we need a Social Network Constitution to protect persons’ rights to shape their own virtual selves, rather than having that done by third party commercial interested that create of us  extremely narrow and distorted on-line selves. So is privacy even a thing anymore?


Boy Power?

Why should a feminist theologian be concerned about adolescent boys? As one who has enjoyed, researched, and written about adolescent girls and their religious lives for nearly two decades, I am frequently asked, “What about the boys?”

For a long time my answer to this question has been this: most of the existing research and writing on adolescence is actually already about boys (the writers just don’t claim that). My work focuses on girls because we need to be paying attention to the particularity of girls–their lives, their experiences, and the ways their diverse performance of gender identities impacts the world. In Girl Talk, God Talk , that’s what I do–using interviews with a group of girls, I tell the story of the connections and disjunctions between adolescent girlhood, faith, and everyday life.

Still the question remains: What about the boys? And, why should a feminist theologian be concerned with them? I can’t speak for all feminist theologians, but this feminist theologian also happens to be the mother of two adolescent boys.  I care intensely about how gender identity opens and/or constricts my sons’ lives, because I want them to flourish as human beings–and their particular way of being human beings is through their performances of boy gender identities. But beyond my personal parenting interests in the wellbeing of my own sons, as a feminist theologian I need to be concerned with boys because (a) boys are part of the creation God made, loves, and redeems, and (b) the well-being of girls is related to the gender identities of boys.  The failure to pay attention to boyhood truncates the ability to attend well to girls and girlhood. As Nancy Choderow astutely observed way back in 1978, reality will not change for women and girls until mothers (and fathers, I would add) begin to raise their sons differently. As Chief Seattle of the Dumawash Confederacy famously said, “Everything is connected.”

Viewing adolescent males and boyhood through the lens of feminist theologies, I am attentive to the ways Christian tradition privileges male narratives, experiences, and power, often to the detriment of women. That must be deconstructed, not only for its negative impact on girls but also for what unjust power relations and privilege does to the humanity of boys. Feminist theologians must care about boys  as well as girls, because we want to participate in God’s transformation toward the flourishing of all, even as we may give special and corrective attention to girls and women in that work.

There is some good work on adolescent boys out there. The good stuff focuses both positively and critically on boys’ gendered experiences amid changing social realities. And then there is some writing that I call “backlash boy literature.” The backlash stuff whines about how everyone has been paying too much attention to girls lately, asserting that boys are the real victims/marginal ones in contested gender spaces. What’s clear to me is that attention to how gender shapes the lives of teens is important for both girls and boys, and is a good focus for feminist theological reflection.